A version of this article originally appeared on VICE en Español in December 2018.
Before she became the first indigenous woman to appear on the cover of Vogue México and to be nominated for an Oscar, Yalitza Aparicio’s biggest concern was not having a job that would let her pay off the debt she’d accumulated from her preschool teaching certification in Oaxaca, Mexico.
She had worked as a waitress, hotel receptionist, and cook; she cleaned houses and took care of children. Then Roma appeared and changed her life drastically. She found herself in front of a camera lens, directed by Alfonso Cuarón—who had personally selected her to play the role of Cleo, the character inspired by his childhood nanny, Libo—in a largely autobiographical film that would lead her to the 2019 Academy Awards.
Aparicio still hasn’t processed it. “Everything is new; every day brings something I would have never imagined. Without a doubt, it’s the most disconcerting thing that has happened in my life,” she says, with her signature soft voice.
Dressed in a pink designer huipil, the 25 year old yawns. We’re sitting in a hotel lounge in Mexico City and she’s been doing interviews and photoshoots since yesterday morning. She takes a sip of water and begins to talk about how the life she had in Tlaxiaco—the indigenous Mixtec town in the state of Oaxaca, where she was born—didn’t allow her to dream of becoming an actress.
“The difficulty of finding a job after graduation wasn’t a surprise, especially in Oaxaca. I took whatever I could find and I was never around. I didn’t have the time nor the desire to watch TV when I got home," she says. "That’s why I didn’t know who Alfonso Cuarón was. [I didn’t have] the luxury to dream about working with him one day.”
Things happened as if by magic. Aparicio recalls accompanying her older sister Edith, who was pregnant at the time, to the casting. Her sister ultimately felt limited by the baby on the way and asked Aparicio to fill in for her.
“They asked me weird things,” she remembers. “They wanted to know if I had ever been in love, if I had fears, if I believed in friendship. [...] I didn’t know that could be a type of test for something. I answered what I could and I left a bit confused. I couldn’t have imagined what would happen afterwards,” she laughs.
Shortly afterwards, Aparicio received a call to attend the second round of callbacks in the capital city of Oaxaca, but she and her family were wary of the project, unsure whether or not it was a legitimate opportunity. Members of Cuarón’s production team had to come to Tlaxiaco to convince them that everything was in order and the film was a serious project. The Aparicios agreed and accompanied Yalitza to the third round of casting in Mexico City.
The young woman didn’t know anything about the critically acclaimed director, but she Googled him the night before the trip and tried to memorize his facial features. Once she was face-to-face with him, however, she felt that everything was a lie and that she’d been deceived. “The other young women who were at the casting were so excited to see [Cuarón] close-up. But he was different in photos—I even thought he might be a fake. I turned to tell my Mom that it wasn’t him, that something wasn’t right here and it was better for us to leave. My mom told me that it wasn’t worth backing down after we’d traveled so far to get here. And yes, that cheered me up.”
Cuarón cast her as Cleo, the protagonist of the film, that same day. Aparicio accepted because she didn’t have secure employment at the time and needed to pay for her degree. That was the moment when everything truly started.
In the beginning, she was afraid. It was 20 weeks of filming and so much time away from home. Moreover, there was no script: she would only find out on set which facet of the character they would film that day. She started to ask herself if she’d made the right choice.
“What happened is that I had mentally prepared myself to work in teaching children. So when I was in the operating room and had to act out a childbirth, or when I had to repeat the scene where I confessed to my boss that I was pregnant 60 times, I started asking myself if this was my vocation,” she says.
Over time, she convinced herself that acting was a means to actualize her dreams of teaching. Aparicio says that one of the most satisfying things about Roma was that she was able to express the feelings of a person who doesn’t usually have a voice, and to teach everyone a bit about Oaxaca and the social movements that have marked Mexico’s history.
“At teaching school, they give us an education with a strong emphasis on students’ rights. That’s why I had a clear understanding of what to do for the scenes where we relive El Halconazo [the Corpus Christi massacre]. I couldn’t help but think about our fallen in Ayotzinapa, about everything that happened to them, and how we had to see it on a screen to understand the scale of it.”
At the end of the day, Aparicio wants to continue teaching. She never lost contact with the children she taught—Roma was a fortuitous extension of what she’d already always wanted. For that reason, she plans to continue acting only in films where her character in the story has a clear lesson to impart.
The lesson Aparicio herself takes away from Roma has to do with the dreams she didn’t have. She says she believes that the circumstances in which she currently finds herself are the biggest proof that nothing is impossible, “that regardless of the physical or origin, we’re all able to go far and demonstrate what our culture, what our spirit is made of.” Suddenly, the 25 year old from Oaxaca seems larger than life in the middle of this huge hotel lounge.
Having shaken off the initial idea that the project was a trap orchestrated by Cuarón, Aparicio says she cares for him deeply. Playing the role of the woman who raised the filmmaker means a lot to him and her alike. Today, their relationship is like that of family.
“[Cuarón] was my guide and patiently explained everything I didn’t know,” she recalls. “He even introduced me to Libo, the person who inspired my character. That was a beautiful experience, one that made it clear to me that Roma was an homage to her and to all other nannies. From that moment on, I knew I had a big responsibility to both of them and with others who could identify with the role.”
Deep diving into the Mexico City of Cuarón’s childhood was an intimate process, and Aparicio says she got to know the director well as a result. Sometimes she jokes that she’s his mother and that she raised him, to which he responds “yes” with a big hug.
Maybe her selection for the role of Cleo wasn’t just a stroke of luck after all. “When I look back, I realize that Roma gave me so much of what I had always wanted,” Aparicio says. “Good friends, the opportunity to learn and to teach without having to use a chalkboard, the closeness with children, and the ability to dream again.”